UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2011 / 0810 - Disaster Response Has Its Own Timing

Disaster Response Has Its Own Timing

August 9, 2011—Five months after the massive earthquake and tsunamis in Japan, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is helping the Japanese people breathe fresh life into their recovery and rehabilitation efforts.

“We were able to provide a lot of initial relief aid to our partners, and now, with the generosity of our United Methodist donors and other UMCOR supporters—who so far have given more than $11 million—we have the resources to pick up where others have left off, and keep going,” said Melissa Crutchfield, UMCOR executive for International Disaster Response.

“Several months on, since the disaster, Japanese relief entities are running out of resources, especially at the municipal level,” she said. “A lot of local groups were very well organized to respond in those early days and weeks—and did so very well—but now they’re starting to run out of steam and resources.”

Crutchfield and UMCOR head, the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, visited Japan last month to meet with UMCOR partners, survey damages, observe the pace of recovery, and, Harvey said, discern how “to move forward in the full rehabilitation process.”

On March 11, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck just offshore of the Tohoku region in northern Japan and provoked massive tsunamis. These in turn caused a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the consequences of which are ongoing.

More than 15,300 people died in the triple disaster, and 8,200 are still missing. Damages are estimated at $305 billion, making this the costliest disaster on record. More than 72,550 buildings were completely destroyed, washed away, or burned to the ground.

First Responders: The Japanese People

Both Harvey and Crutchfield were impressed with the immediate response by Japanese agencies—both official and nongovernmental—and by the spirit of perseverance and order of the Japanese people. They also witnessed, they said, a growing appreciation for volunteerism in response to the emergency.

The Sendai Emmaus Center, with its Tohoku Disaster Relief Center, an UMCOR partner, employed its youth program to organize young people to help clean out damaged homes and offer a ministry of presence to their neighbors. Some of the youth involved rode their bicycles 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) each day to their work sites.

“It was interesting to see the transformation of the youth,” Crutchfield said. “There was this sense of change in them, that they would go back and live their lives a little differently; that they would reach out to the elderly in their own communities, and think about their communities from a new perspective.”

Although many of the youth followed Buddhist, or Shinto, or no religious tradition at all, they returned to the Emmaus Center at the end of each day, “eager to share their experiences,” Harvey observed. “I found that pretty remarkable.”

Needs, going forward

After meeting with nearly a dozen executives from different partner organizations, traveling to various work sites, and visiting the areas hardest hit by the earthquake, tsunamis, and nuclear threat, Harvey and Crutchfield identified four priority areas of continuing need.

Two of them—reconstruction of homes and other buildings, and the rehabilitation of lost livelihoods—are immediately comprehensible to anyone surveying the landscape of the disaster.

The other two have to deal with the more insidious consequences of the nuclear crisis, and they are psychosocial support for affected individuals and communities, and advocacy for responsible energy sourcing.

“There are a lot of different pieces. The infrastructure is a comparatively easy fix,” Crutchfield said. “It’s fairly simple to rebuild, even if it takes time and a lot of resources; it’s tangible and it’s possible. But there is that other piece that’s a lot harder, intangible, and very unknown: the impact of the nuclear crisis.”

Related to these is the need to facilitate the rebuilding of a sense of community, which in many places was shattered by the triple disaster.

Among residents of towns and villages impacted by the nuclear crisis, there is a lot of tension between those who stayed (to maintain their livelihoods) and those who left (to protect their children or themselves) and subsequently returned.

In post-tsunami evacuation centers, Crutchfield said, “People were able to band together. But when they began to move into individual, temporary housing, the sense of community was disrupted and there was an increase in anxiety, suicides, and stressors on the psychosocial elements of recovery.”

“What we heard most from our partners was a need to re-create that sense of community; to create community centers, and to have not just locations but programs to bring people together physically, emotionally, and spiritually, to try to heal some of those divides that were created in the aftermath of the disaster.”

New UMCOR grants

Shortly after Harvey and Crutchfield returned to the United States from Japan, the UMCOR board of directors approved grants totaling more than $112,400 for the Tohoku Disaster Relief Center of the United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ).

The grants will allow the center to expand its operations from Sendai, where it is currently located, to Ishinomaki. Both areas were hard hit by the tsunami. The local government of Ishinomaki lost one-third of its staff to the disaster, drastically reducing its capacity to respond.

The satellite office in Ishinomaki will allow the Tohoku Disaster Relief Center to coordinate and manage volunteer-driven relief and recovery efforts in the area.

UMCOR also will continue to work with partners Asian Rural Institute (ARI), Sendai Christian Alliance, Church World Service, and Japan Ecumenical Disaster Response Office (JEDRO) to create, Crutchfield said, “hubs of community activity” for psychosocial support and for relief distributions in areas impacted by the tsunamis and the threat of radiation poisoning.

“We’ll also do the nuts-and-bolts rebuilding, providing grants for reconstruction, as we have done with our partners at ARI,” she added. ARI trains Japanese farmers and agriculturalists from other nations in sustainable farming techniques. Its buildings were badly damaged by the earthquake.

Harvey said she and Crutchfield viewed the fields where ARI students and staff plant sunflowers to remove radioactive chemicals from the soil. “They were the first to do this sort of thing,” she said. “It’s really exiting for UMCOR to fund projects like this because they’re so innovative and connected to the environment.”

Crutchfield added that UMCOR would respond to opportunities “to rebuild communities and infrastructure, and we will certainly develop efforts in the fields of agriculture and livelihoods.”

The General Board of Global Ministries and The United Methodist Church in general will find a role in the long-term advocacy for safe and responsible uses of energy, she suggested. “That we’re an American-based agency carries a lot of weight in the global conversation about nuclear power.”

Overall, Crutchfield said, “This recovery is really being led by our partners on the ground. They’re going to map out their recovery, and UMCOR is going to walk along with them. We realized in the course of our visit how timely it was in terms of making a plan for GBGM and UMCOR to support those efforts.”

“I’m confident that the direction we’ll receive from the people in Japan will allow UMCOR to respond effectively, responsibly, and appropriately,” Harvey underscored.

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*Linda Unger is UMCOR Staff Editor and Senior Writer.